Politics & Policy

Problematic Priorities

Is John Kerry serious?

Ah, what a tangled web we weave. Having made it through the primary process to a virtual lock on the Democratic nomination, Senator Kerry will now have to deal with the tangled web of contradictions he left behind. What his predicament reveals are the consequences of acting without any principle in mind. Nuances, as his supporters describe them, can only get him so far.

For a good example of these contradictions, one need only compare Senator Kerry’s positions on trade and the war in Iraq. On trade, to meet the challenge of John Edwards, he had to imitate Senator Smoot; on Iraq, to meet the challenge of Howard Dean, he had to sound like Senator McGovern. If we take him seriously, as we must, few Americans would accept the priorities he adopted in this intellectual journey.

Sweeping to victory from the Iowa caucuses through the Super Tuesday primaries, Senator Kerry fumed about U.S. trade policy. Jobs are being “outsourced” to India, China, and other foreign places, he declared, leaving Americans unemployed. His solution: to review all our trade pacts with a view to making them “fairer” to Americans by including or enforcing environmental and labor standards. He was particularly critical of NAFTA, although he voted for it, because it hasn’t been implemented in a way that protects U.S. jobs.

If we are to take Senator Kerry seriously about reviewing our trade agreements, including NAFTA, then he must be saying he wants to modify them. Since he believes these agreements are very favorable to our trading partners, it is reasonable to expect that they will object to the changes he wants. What, then, would Senator Kerry do? Judging from the strength of his assertions, and the assurances he offered to his cheering audiences, he promised if elected to implement these changes even if our trading partners don’t agree. This tough position helped him overcome Senator Edwards.

In light of this, however, we should be puzzled by Senator Kerry’s position on the war in Iraq. On that issue, he argued that we should not have gone to war without the support of the world community, by which he probably meant the U.N. He now says that although he voted in favor of the resolution that authorized President Bush to attack Iraq–and declared along the way that he thought Saddam Hussein was a danger to the United States–he was not actually voting for a war, but only a “process.” He expected, he now says, that President Bush would use the resolution to counsel with unspecified others about the efficacy of resorting to war. In later statements, he has suggested that he thought the resolution was necessary–not to empower the President, but to convince Saddam Hussein that we were serious. Again, what he seems to have envisioned–if we take him at his word–is a “process”–a negotiation–not a war.

But if Senator Kerry voted for a process, as he now says, what was that process, and what was the outcome he was anticipating? Voting for a process implies, if it does not actually mean, that the outcome could be something other than what you want. So Senator Kerry must have been saying, when he voted for a “process,” that he would have been satisfied with a decision not to act–not to got to war–even though he said at the time of the vote that he thought Saddam Hussein was a danger to our national security.

So all of this leads to some troubling conclusions about Senator Kerry–if, of course, we take him seriously. He will act unilaterally, and ignore the objections of our trading partners, when it comes to changing our trading arrangements. But when the issue is our national security, he will not act if other countries object. It is hard to believe that most Americans–no matter how concerned they are about the loss of jobs–would see these positions as the right priorities for a president. They may not indeed be Senator Kerry’s priorities, but then we have to wonder why he got himself into this quandary in the first place–and what that would mean for the country if he actually became president.

Peter J. Wallison is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former White House counsel for President Reagan.

Peter J. Wallison is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He was general counsel of the Treasury and White House counsel in the Reagan administration.

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